As we’re facing a prolonged period of social distancing and self-isolation, it seems we’re now spending every waking hour with our partner.
A lot of couples are now doing everything together – living, sleeping, working, eating and exercising – and after several weeks, it is likely presenting more frustrations and tensions than usual.
If you’ve been spending a lot more time with your live-in partner, psychotherapist Karen Phillip shares some tips for how you can manage the challenges that come with it.
Acknowledge that the current situation is tough
“For couples that are already in a degree of relationship distress, this [situation] has unfortunately accelerated their distress,” said psychotherapist Karen Phillip.
“Acknowledge that this is tough. Acknowledge that we are all going to deal with our frustrations differently.
“Some people will be more anxious, others will become intolerant, and everyone is different. Accepting those differences are a real struggle for many of us. But it’s about concentrating on what we can control. We can control our words, we can control our behaviours, our actions and even, to a degree, our anxiety.”
There is a higher level of frustration due to the unknown aspects of the coronavirus crisis, and because there is no definitive end date in sight, Dr Phillip said.
“The unknown develops the fear and increases our anxiety, and when we have an increase of anxiety, we usually become more intolerant, we become a bit shorter, we become tense. And we often use our partner as our scapegoat.”
Dr Phillip said one of the first steps a couple can take to ease the burdens associated with navigating a change in their lifestyle is to acknowledge and accept that there are going to be hard days.
Set expectations and boundaries
Communicating clearly is always important in a relationship, and it is imperative at the moment to reduce any conflict.
For couples who now have to share a workspace, it’s important to set boundaries to ensure you can continue to be productive in your job.
For partners where one person has lost their job but the other is still employed, this can pose unique frustrations. The unemployed person might be bored and want attention from their partner, while the other is feeling distracted and wants to focus on their work.
In this instance, it is important to set clear boundaries and expectations.
Dr Phillip advises the working person in a couple to be clear about needing to retreat to the home office or spare room for work each day, and indicating set times for doing so.
“If the other person knows the schedule, it makes it a lot easier, because it sets those expectations and boundaries. It gives the other person a known – for instance, we know they’re going to start work at 8am, we know they’re going to stop for lunch at 12pm, we know they’re going to finish at 4pm,” Dr Phillip said.
Give each other space
During self-isolation, managing space can be one of the most important steps a couple can take to minimise conflict.
Couples should get comfortable asking for – and giving each other – space, said Dr Phillip.
“While you’re working, one person might talk a lot, while the other person is trying to concentrate. If you’re able to work from separate rooms or spaces in the house, especially if your working styles are different, then do so,” she said.
For couples living in a small apartment that doesn’t lend itself to creating separate work or relaxation spaces, it can feel like you’re living on top of each other.
“This is where I’d suggest that the people in the couple go out individually, for either a walk or taking separate breaks for lunch, to have some time apart,” Dr Phillip said.
“It separates your day and gives you a little bit of time [for yourself].”
Be more playful
As we’re all faced with unprecedented pressures and obstacles, it’s important for couples to be more playful to ease the tension each day.
Dr Phillip recommends having a naked day, playing silly games, or dancing together.
“For some couples, I am prescribing that they share a joke a day. You’ve got to get online, you’ve got to find a funny joke, memorise it, and then deliver it over dinner or over lunch. That’s particularly important for those who aren’t working and are bored to death,” she said.
“Do something that’s fun – something you can laugh and smile at.”
Dr Phillip has several resources, including a free COVID-19 hypnosis, available on her website.